Newton appoints Bollinger as the city’s new Public Safety Chief

The city of Susanville announces the appointment of Michael Bengoa-Bollinger as the city’s Public Safety Chief, according to a statement by the city of Susanville.

Mike Bollinger, the city of Susanville’s new Public Safety Chief.

According to the statement, Bollinger brings a wealth of experience and expertise to his new role, holding a master’s degree in leadership and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. His impressive career journey includes serving as a volunteer firefighter at the Susanville Fire Department, as well as firefighting roles with CalFire and the Bureau of Land Management.

He has also served as a deputy sheriff in both Butte County and Lassen County, and as a parole/probation agent for the state of Wyoming Department of Corrections.

In addition, he has held positions as a police sergeant in the towns of Afton, Wyoming, and Herlong, California.

“Bollinger’s dedication to public service is evident through his longstanding commitment to the city of Susanville,” according to the statement. “He began his career as a reserve police officer in 1989, transitioning to a full-time officer in 2012.”

Over the years, he has earned various promotions within the department, ultimately serving as captain since September of 2021. Most recently, he has been serving as acting police chief since November of 2023.

Bollinger’s strong relationships within the community, his unwavering dedication to public safety and emergency response, and his proven leadership abilities make him a highly valued member of the Susanville community.

According to the statement, “The city extends its heartfelt congratulations to Public Safety Chief Michael Bengoa-Bollinger on his well-deserved promotion. We are eager to witness his continued success in leading both the Susanville Fire Department and the Susanville Police Department.”

Bollinger, Wood wrongly fired by city
Bollinger and Matt Wood, two veteran city police officers and applicants for the chief’s position, expressed concern over the process the city followed in hiring John King as chief of police. They were fired by the city for expressing those concerns. The officers sued the city and won undisclosed cash settlements. Bollinger returned to the Susanville Police Department and Wood accepted a position at the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office.

Here’s a Lassen County Times story from January 2021, “Council approves settlement agreements with fired cops.” 

Former city of Susanville Police Chief John King.

The contentious four-year-long dispute between the city of Susanville and two veteran police officers has finally been resolved — reversing a previous council’s decision to terminate the officers for their roles questioning the practices the city followed in the hiring of former Susanville Police Chief John King.

Lassen News obtained an 11-page Confidential Settlement Agreement and General Release signed by the former Susanville Police Department Sergeant Mike Bollinger and Susanville City Manager/Susanville Police Chief Kevin Jones on Dec. 23, and another signed by SPD Lieutenant Matt Wood and Jones, also on Dec. 23, after filing a California Public Records Act request for the documents.

The Susanville City Council approved the agreements during a closed session Dec. 28 meeting. In an email, Jones reported the vote was 4-1, with councilmember Kevin Stafford casting the lone dissenting vote.

According to the agreements, the claimants and their attorneys “shall keep the existence, terms and conditions of this agreement completely and strictly confidential” … and upon inquiry “shall state only that the matter has been resolved.”

Despite that confidentiality agreement, “Claimants acknowledge because the city it a public entity, it may have obligations to disclose this agreement or its terms.”

Settlements cost taxpayers more than $455,000
Wood will receive $225,000 in three parts — $63,000 as wages, $81,537,50 in non-economic damages and $80,462.50 to Susanville attorney Eugene Chittock for attorney’s fees and costs.

Wood plans to remain with the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office and is not interested in going back to work at the SPD.

Bollinger will receive $115,000 in three parts — $20,000 as wages, $12,870.83 for non-economic damages and $82,129.17 to Chittock for attorney’s fees and costs.

Bollinger also will be allowed to return to his position as a sergeant with the SPD subject to qualification contingencies. If he returns to the SPD, he also will receive 339 hours of sick leave, 120 hours of vacation time and 120 holiday hours subject to the conditions of city policy. He will also receive reimbursement of $1,000 for uniform-related expenses.

In addition, if allowed by CalPers, the city shall “buyback” four years of service credit for Bollinger, not to exceed $115,000. If CalPers denies this buyback, Bollinger will receive the $115,000 as wages.

If Bollinger cannot return to his position with the SPD the city will follow a different payment structure for him.

In addition, “The city shall re-designate claimants’ terminations from the city in July 2017 from involuntary discharges to voluntary resignations,” and remove all negative documentations from the city’s files “including any investigative reports and notices of discipline.”

Background
The conflict with the officers began after Bollinger and Wood — both candidates for the job — expressed concerns regarding the practices the city followed in the hiring of former Susanville Police Chief John King.

Former Susanville City Administrator Jared Hancock, left, at a Susanville City Council meeting.

Former city administrator Jared Hancock told the Lassen County Times the council directed him to extend a conditional offer of employment to King and to initiate the background investigation and the verification of his qualifications on Nov. 17, 2016.

In the uproar that followed, a crime report alleging forgery and impersonation of a police officer in regard to a background document used in King’s hiring was filed. A criminal complaint also was filed with the Lassen County Grand Jury and the California Department of Justice. The United Public Employees of California Local 792, the union that represents the Susanville Police Officers Association also expressed concerns over King’s hiring.

The officers appealed their terminations in May 2018, but those appeals were denied by a 4-1 vote in closed session. Mayor Kathie Garnier, Mayor pro tem Joe Franco and Councilmembers Brian Wilson and Kevin Stafford voted to deny the officers’ appeals. Councilmember Mendy Schuster cast the lone vote supporting the officers.

Lassen County Grand Jury
The 2017-2018 Lassen County Grand Jury criticized the city’s employment practices.

According to its report, the grand jury discovered “a lack of consistency” with the city’s hiring practices that began in 2014  and placed that blame squarely on the council — “The Susanville City Council is the chief operating authority for the city. Complete accountability ultimately rests with the five elected councilmembers.”

“During this investigation, it became quite apparent there were a myriad of discrepancies with the hiring and firing process used by the city administrator,” the grand jury reported. “In turn, these were supported by the Susanville City Council during the 2016 hiring process of the police chief.”

The grand jury also found the city council “failed to assure a fair hiring practice for the police chief. This occurred by allowing the city administrator the sole power to conduct the entire hiring process.”

In addition, the grand jury also found the city failed to cross reference changes to the job announcement bulletin during the process of hiring the police chief.

“This job announcement reduced the qualifications necessary to be hired. This should have been a red flag warning, but instead appeared to be ignored,” the grand jury reported.

Moreover, the grand jury found concerns raised by members of the public as well as former and current city employees regarding the city administrator’s management style and hiring practices were not addressed.

“When this information was presented to the city council, it appeared warranted yet went unheeded,” the grand jury reported. “This responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of the Susanville City Council.”

The grand jury also found the city council allowed Hancock “far too much latitude” when it came to hiring city employees. This was “inappropriate and there was an extreme lack of checks and balances.”

The grand jury found “many circumstances” when it appeared the council conducted business in closed sessions that should have been conducted in open sessions.

“This eliminated any possibilities for public input and media coverage,” the grand jury reported. “It also served as a lack of transparency with possible civil code or Brown Act violations.

Seeking a writ of mandate — an order from the court requiring a governmental entity to follow the law
The officers filed a motion for a writ of mandate and took the matter to the Lassen County Superior Court. Local judges Tony Mallery and Mark Nareau both recused themselves from the case.

Candace Beason, a visiting Lassen County Superior Court Judge, heard the case, issued her opinion and sent the matter back to the council to reconsider the matter after reading her comments.

“The court finds that Wood and Bollinger exercised a legal right when they individually filed grievances to the hiring process to fill the position of Susanville Police Chief,” Beason wrote. “There is no evidence in the record to establish a malicious intent in filing the grievances or the police report to document the unauthorized use of Wood’s signature to obtain confidential information. The Susanville City Council’s factual findings demonstrate an imputation of malice to both petitioners that taints the findings of misconduct and the decision to terminate petitioners’ employment.”

“The city was aware that the court was going to remand these cases to the city council for reconsideration, and has been awaiting that action,” said Mike Wilson, former Susanville city administrator in August 2019. “These matters will be placed on a closed session agenda for in late August or early September for further review by the councilmembers who originally heard the disciplinary appeals. As this remains a personnel matter, further comment at this time would be inappropriate.”

This timeline appeared in the Jan. 30, 2018 edition of the Lassen County Times
Aug. 25, 2016
The city of Susanville issues a press release and job announcement for the chief of police. According to the Susanville Police Officers Association, that announcement was “full of errors and information not prudent to the position.”

Sept. 13, 2016
The city of Susanville issues a second job announcement. One of the qualifications listed in that announcement reads: Seven years of extensive California law enforcement experience with a minimum of three years at the management or mid-management level. The SPOA alleges King does not meet that minimum qualification.

Nov. 17, 2016
According to Hancock, the city council interviews the top candidates, and unanimously approves King’s selection. The council directed Hancock to extend a conditional offer of employment to King and to initiate the background investigation and the verification of his qualifications. The minutes from the council’s Nov. 17 special closed session meeting noted that the board took no reportable action.

Dec. 22, 2016
Bollinger files a formal grievance with the city regarding the process being followed in hiring the police chief. He alleges he is one of two local candidates who were qualified for the position but were not moved forward in the interview process.

Jan. 2, 2017
Steve Allen, a representative from the United Public Employees of California Local 792, the governing union of the Susanville Police Officers Association, writes a letter to Hancock.

“Simply put, the SPOA membership is very concerned about the police chief recruitment process,” Allen wrote.

 The union had a list of concerns and questions, including the lack of details provided regarding the selection process; the seeming(ly) “disorganized” process being followed for oral interviews of candidates; that panel members reviewing candidates may not be the best available in the county; that the questions asked by the panel “may not be appropriate to identify the best candidate;” that the scoring system and criteria used in moving candidates forward was unclear; that there was a lack of community involvement in the selection process; that candidates, including King, shared information about other candidates; that not all of the candidates met the minimum qualifications; and it is unclear who screened applicants for meeting the minimum qualifications.

  “Candidate John King shared he has no police management experience whereas the application notice states a minimum of three years of mid-management law enforcement experience is required, including the possession of or ability to possess a Police Officer Standards and Training management certificate within one year of date of hire,” Allen wrote.

“The question was, ‘Is California law being followed with respect to hiring the new police chief?’” Allen said.

Jan. 17, 2017
The Susanville Police Officers Association submits a Where I Stand piece to the Lassen County Times expressing concerns about the hiring process involved in hiring King as the new chief of police.

Jan. 18, 2017
The Susanville City Council recognizes Jim Uptegrove, who served as interim police chief following the medical retirement of chief Tom Downing. Uptegrove’s last day will be Jan. 20.

Jan. 19, 2017
Hancock responds to Bollinger’s Dec. 22 grievance letter. According to Hancock, Bollinger’s grievance cited three concerns — that King does not possess and will not be able to obtain a POST (Police Officer’s Standards and Training) Management Certificate within one year of appointment, the minimum standard in the recruitment announcement; that the new chief should have seven years of extensive California law enforcement experience with a minimum of three years at the management or mid-management level and he does not; and that the new chief be experienced in maintaining municipal operating budgets and he is not.

“This letter will inform you that your grievance is denied,” Hancock wrote. “First, the grievance process outlined in the employee manual does not provide that an employee may grieve the general selection process for police chief as unjust or inequitable. Regardless of this fact, even assuming that the process outlined in the employee manual did provide for such a grievance, you have not provided any evidence or other information substantiating the allegations you have made. Moreover, even if there were evidence to establish your allegations, your grievances fails to recognize that the invitation for applications for the position of police chief for the city of Susanville explicitly provided that ‘any combination of experience and training that would provide the required knowledge and abilities will be considered.’”

Jan. 23, 2017
King begins work as the city of Susanville’s chief of police.

Jan. 24, 2017
Hancock pens  a Where I Stand column for the Lassen County Times announcing the hiring of King as chief of police.

Hancock wrote, “Over the last six months, the city conducted a comprehensive recruitment for the position of police chief. The recruitment yielded a number of quality candidates and the city is committed and confident in the process that included interviews conducted by local municipal and law enforcement professionals and later by city management and the city council.”

Feb. 1, 2017
Hancock introduces King at the city council’s Feb. 1 meeting.

Hancock said King comes from “a strong military background” and “many years with the Ceres police force and more recently with the South Lake Tahoe police force. He really impressed me and the city council through the selection process, and we’re glad he’s up here, a fixture in the community.”

“There comes a time in a person’s life when they’ve done all the training they can do, and they’ve exposed themselves to all the things they can expose themselves to, and all that’s left is for somebody to give them a shot,” King told the council members. “I think that’s where I was, and you guys gave me that shot. I really appreciate that. I know that some of the things I still have to come up to a certain level with and maintain it, and your confidence in me is not lost. I will do everything I can to make sure that you’re proud of your choice, and the department you decided to let me lead will be successful in the future.”

Feb. 7, 2017
In an interview with the Lassen County Times, Hancock said he was “confident” about the hiring process the city followed.

According to Hancock, the city had not completed its pre-employment screening process when the union submitted its Where I Stand piece, and Hancock said the Susanville City Council made the decision to hire King during a closed session meeting in which he said the council directed him to handle all the steps necessary — such as background and pre-employment checks — before offering King the job, and that the city’s municipal code authorized him to hire the new chief with the city council’s approval.

“The council is part of that decision, and has the final approval,” Hancock said, “but it’s actually the administrator who does all the administrative paperwork … ”

March 8, 2017
The city of Susanville asks for an independent investigation into the questions surrounding King’s hiring after the newspaper begins asking questions about the process it followed in hiring King. Hancock also tells the newspaper he was not aware of the crime report filed by the local officers until the newspaper began asking questions about it. He referred questions about the investigation to King.

“At this point, it’s an investigation,” King said. “The investigator’s been told there’s a situation, and he’s been given no direction … I’d rather just let the investigator come in and let the investigation take him where it takes him. I don’t have anything to hide, but I don’t want it to look like I’m pointing him in the wrong direction or in a particular direction. I don’t want to make it look like a witch hunt, and I don’t want to make it look like I have to hide to protect myself.”

While King said he did not want to discuss the exact scope of the investigation, he said he expects the investigator will investigate every part of the city’s hiring process from the beginning to now. He said different factions in town might accept the results of an investigation conducted by an independent party.

The newspaper files a Public Records Act request for a copy of the crime report allegedly filed by the two police officers.

March 21, 2017
Jessica Ryan, the attorney for the city of Susanville, denies the newspaper’s request for a copy of Crime Report No. 17-0061 — the crime report regarding the hiring of the city’s new chief of police in which an officer alleges his signature was forged on a document used in hiring the city’s new police chief.

The crime report contains two allegations— impersonating an officer and forgery. Allegedly the officer’s signature was photocopied onto a form he did not sign.

Local police officers decline to discuss the matter with the newspaper because they said the police department has placed them under a gag order.

“I can talk to you about anything else, but I can’t talk about this,” one officer said.

April 2017
Hancock reveals the existence of a third job announcement flyer that states, “Any combination of experience and training that would provide the required knowledge and abilities … ” for the police chief’s position. The minimum requirement for a POST Management Certificate, or ability to obtain in one year, remains, and is paired with the Executive POST Certificate to be obtained within 36 months of employment.

Allegedly this third job announcement — the one Hancock now says he was used when hiring King — was never posted anywhere publicly, not even on the city’s website.

April 7, 2017
Hancock responds to the newspaper’s questions regarding the three different employment brochures for the chief of police position.

“We request that the information you rely on is from an official source,” Hancock informs the newspaper.

“The city’s original job announcement required that the applicant hold a management certificate,” Hancock wrote. “It was brought to our attention that this requirement could make most local candidates ineligible. As I stated in the press release, we wanted to encourage as many qualified individuals as possible to apply. As a result, the job announcement was amended. I do not have the exact date it posted on our website but it was in late August/early September, so that the candidate need not hold the management certificate.”

Hancock gives the newspaper a copy of the third job announcement, but the newspaper is unable to confirm any public posting of the document.

April 11, 2017
Hancock responds in a written statement to some of the newspaper’s questions.

“Suggestions that the city employed an unorthodox recruitment, selection or hiring process, that the city council was excluded from the process, that the city relied on fabricated credentials or that the chief of police lacks the qualifications to lead the department are patently false,” Hancock wrote.

“The city’s recruitment and selection was consistent with past recruitments, city codes and state statutes. The city is pleased with the chief’s qualifications, training and experience and the decision it made to hire the new police chief. No reconsideration is pending. The state of California and the California Commission of the Peace Officer Standards and Training have adopted minimum standards for an individual to serve in the capacity of a Chief of Police for a General Law city. These Sections are primarily Government Code Section 36501, 38630, 1029 and 1031. POST interprets these laws to mean that ‘every person appointed to the position of chief of police, either as an interim or permanent appointment, is a peace officer and must satisfy all the applicable peace officer selection standards. In addition, as a condition of continued employment, a chief of police must obtain the (California) POST Basic Certificate within two years of appointment, if the individual does not possess the certificate.”

Regarding the potentially forged background check document, Hancock said that matter is still under investigation.

June 7, 2017
King addresses the city council and alleges only 6 percent of the crime reports filed and the arrests made by the Susanville Police Department result in convictions in the Lassen County Superior Court.

Stacey Montgomery, Lassen County’s district attorney, said she didn’t have any specific statistics to cite because she hasn’t reviewed the records, but she believes King’s 6 percent estimate is wholly inaccurate and doesn’t reflect the percentage of her office’s actual conviction rate.

Other local attorneys also question King’s report.

Aug. 16, 2017
The city of Susanville and Hancock reach “a mutual separation agreement.”

Sept. 7, 2017
The city finally reveals the details surrounding the “mutual separation agreement it made with Hancock. The former city administrator will receive will receive a cash payment of $125,000 and payment for his accrued vacation time as “full and final payment for all wage and benefit obligations the city of Susanville owes Mr. Hancock including the severance pay outlined in the employment contract of Mr. Hancock.”

The separation agreement revealed the council voted 4-0 on Aug. 16 to end its relationship with Hancock (councilmember Joe Franco was absent), but the agreement was signed by Kathie Garnier, the city’s mayor, Hancock and Ryan on Sept. 6.

Oct. 11, 2017
Hancock serves his last day as city administrator.

Oct. 17, 2017
Lassen County Sheriff Dean Growdon tells the Lassen County Board of Supervisors about his newest hire, one of the fired city police officers.

“Deputy Wood has approximately 25 years experience as a law enforcement officer,” Growdon tells the supervisors. “He worked for the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office as a correctional officer and a reserve deputy sheriff before leaving for employment with the Susanville Police Department. While serving at Susanville Police Department, he served as an officer, sergeant and lieutenant. He has a broad range of training and experience that will benefit the sheriff’s office and Lassen County.”

Bollinger, the other fired officer, has accepted a job at a local group home.

Dec. 17, 2017
The city council announces it will meet in closed session from 9 a.m. to noon and again from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 9, Wednesday, Jan. 10 and Friday, Jan. 12 to “Consider appeals of Mathew Wood and Michael Bollinger  as established by employee disciplinary procedures (Resolution No. 04-3848).”

Those closed session meetings were later cancelled “due to procedural issues” and “all the attorneys involved agreed to postpone the hearings, probably until sometime in February.”

Jan. 23, 2018
The Susanville City Council announces it has decided to “separate Police Chief John King from employment with the city of Susanville,” effective Jan. 22. Sergeant Kelley Merritt is appointed acting chief of police.

Jan. 30, 2018
Nearly a year later, the city still has not revealed the results of the independent investigation it launched into the process followed during King’s hiring.

The city has not yet announced the new dates for the officers’ appeals.